x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Military patrols stem exodus of refugees from Tunisia

Italy ask EU for €100m to tackle influx of illegal immigrants as UN refugee organisation reports drop in arrivals.

The Tunisian military has begun to patrol its coast more aggressively and significantly slowed the flow of thousands of refugees to Italy yesterday.

During the previous three days, more than 4,000 people had arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa, causing Italy to appeal for help from the European Union.

Laura Boldrini, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, on Lampedusa sais: "People are not coming now and we don't know if it is a break, or because of the different situation in Tunisia." She said that the situation for the refugees on the island remained dire, even after a reception centre had reopened, because it was swamped by 2,200 people while meant to serve only 800.

The Italian interior minister, Roberto Maroni, had earlier warned of a "biblical exodus" from North Africa to Europe after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Yesterday, Italy intercepted a vessel near Sicily with 32 passengers, thought to be from Egypt.

Italy's beleaguered prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who was indicted on teenage prostitution charges yesterday, appealed to the EU for help. Talking to the bloc's president, Herman Van Rompuy, he said that the crisis "is urgent and concerns all of the European Union and needs to be addressed in that way". Italy is seeking €100 million (Dh496m) from the EU to help tackle the influx.

The EU border agency would help Italian authorities deal with the wave of illegal immigration, its chief Ilkka Laitinen said yesterday.

"It is a matter of days and this operation will be launched," Mr Laitinen said in Berlin, adding that it will comprise between 30 and 50 personnel, "some vessels and a couple of aircraft".

He stressed that the agency would play only a "secondary" role behind Italy, which already had "considerable resources".

The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who visited Tunisia on Monday, announced several measures to help stabilise the country. These include releasing €17 million in immediate aid and granting €258 million by 2013.

A spokesman for Lady Ashton could not say what specific measures to stop the flow of refugees had been discussed.

Direct talks between the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, and the Tunisian interim prime minister, Mohamed Ghanouchi, in Tunis on Monday night seemed to have yielded more concrete results.

The Tunisian news agency TAP quoted Mr Frattini as saying that the two countries had reached an agreement to stem the flow. TAP reported Mr Frattini as saying that the deal would "respect Tunisia's sovereignty".

Earlier Tunisia reacted angrily to Italian suggestions that Rome could send police to help patrol the Tunisian coast.

The agreed package was said to involve equipment, such as radar and boats for the Tunisian coastguard, as well as a change of visa requirements for Tunisians who wanted to visit Italy.

Mr Frattini was also reported to have promised an extra €100 million in aid.

But the stepped-up Tunisian patrols may have come at a cost. In one unconfirmed case, immigrants who reached Lampedusa accused the Tunisian coastguard of ramming a vessel loaded with refugees. "The boat was carrying 120 passengers, 85 people were saved, five died and 30 are still missing," one of the survivors, 23-year-old Ziad Ben Abdaala, told the news agency AFP.

The situation in Tunisia has calmed during recent days. Some in the country have expressed surprise at the exodus towards Europe.

Ms Boldrini, of the UNHCR on Lampedusa, told The National that many of the refugees were economic migrants, fleeing poverty and unemployment.

"But there are also people who are fearing the instability, the insecurity in the country. They say there are disorders and that they would like to go somewhere else. They say they would like to apply for asylum," she said.

Many had expressed a wish to continue on to other European countries, particularly France, she said. This made a European response to the influx all the more important, Ms Boldrini said.

But the stream of refugees served rather to highlight once more Europe's difficulty in responding to immigration issues.

France's minister for European affairs, Laurent Wauquiez, warned yesterday that his country would accept only a few "marginal" cases.

"France's position is not to reward illegal immigration," he said.